Changing Climate, Changing Patterns: An Occasional Series on the Impacts of Warming Temperatures

January 15, 2010

Arctic Ground Squirrels

A male arctic ground squirrel emerges from his den in the spring near Alaska's Toolik Field Station after a long and cold hibernation. All photos courtesy Loren Buck

To the naked eye, the abundant arctic ground squirrels near Toolik Field Station, Alaska, simply disappear as the summer slips away. They burrow into nests a meter deep and settle in for a long, cold “sleep” entombed in a virtual ice cave.

Yet their ability to survive such extreme temperatures has long fascinated scientists, and a team of collaborators with NSF funds is studying how hibernating arctic squirrels regulate their temperature and what they use to fuel their bodies (i.e. fats, proteins, carbohydrates).

Using advanced genetic analysis, which will be conducted on captive squirrels in labs at the universities of Fairbanks and Anchorage, the team aims to understand which genes are activated during hibernation in response to temperature changes.

“We already know that hibernating squirrels switch metabolic fuels they draw from based on the ambient temperature,” said Loren Buck, principal investigator and associate professor of biology at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. “Now we want to see how this is accomplished by analyzing which genes are regulated at different stages of hibernation.”

What Genes Tell Us

Made of strands of DNA, genes provide instructions for making proteins, large and complex molecules that perform a number of functions. Proteins provide cell structure, carry out almost all of the cell’s chemical reactions, and act as cell messengers.

Buck’s work with arctic squirrels seeks to understand—at specificity previously not possible because the genetic technology didn’t exist—how the body responds genetically to extreme temperatures.

Buck said the research results could have important biomedical implications. Scientists have long used data on hibernating animals in models for cerebral ischemia (reduced blood flow to the brain), traumatic head injury and hypothermia, and his results could yield important information.

“We have already established that the squirrels switch metabolic fuels in response to changes in ambient temperatures,” said Buck. “Now the question is to understand the mechanism by which they adjust and alter their metabolism.”

In The Lab

In the lab, Buck and his team have a group of squirrels in simulated hibernating conditions with varying temperatures. They monitor the animals’ core body temperatures and the amount of work the hibernating squirrels have to do to keep from freezing.

Not surprisingly, when it isn’t extremely cold, the squirrels work less. For instance, at 2+ degrees C the squirrel body temperature is also about +2 degrees C. However, when the temperature plummets to – 10 degrees C, the animals become “thermogenic” (heat producing) to maintain a core body temp of -2.9 degrees C.

The researchers use genetic analysis known as quantitative real time PCR to identify which reserves (proteins, carbohydrates, etc.) the squirrels rely on at those extreme temperatures.

When the animals are at torpor, a stage of hibernation, their core temperature is the same as the ambient temperature. For instance, when the ground temp is 0 degrees C, so is the squirrels’ core temperature. At this phase, the squirrels rely on fats to fuel their metabolism.

But when ambient temperatures decrease below the level at which squirrels can survive (-2.9 degrees C), the bodies rely on proteins and carbohydrates to keep from freezing.

To analyze the genetic information, researchers euthanize squirrels at various points of their hibernation to study which genes are expressed.

In The Field

Well before hibernation, Buck and a graduate student set up a trapping grid near Toolik Field Station to capture squirrels for lab experiments.

Buck and his team spend time in the field monitoring the squirrels and capturing animals for the labs. They collect data that can be correlated with the genetic experiments.

Temperature loggers have been in place at the squirrel hibernating sites near Toolik since 1993, providing a 17-year picture of ground temperatures. Buck said data from the metabolic study can be correlated with temperature data to study a potential link between environmental temperature and overwinter body mass.

Squirrels as Study Subjects

In addition to the ground temperature loggers, he and his crew have implanted about 100 loggers into squirrels on the North Slope to better understand the biological response to the environment.

“As we collected these data, there was more emphasis on climate change and the need to investigate its impacts on vertebrates,” said Buck. “To get the physiological data it takes a cooperative species with a short enough life span.”

Arctic squirrels are ideal because they don’t move around a lot, are large enough to carry implanted loggers (unlike, say, voles), don’t migrate out of the Arctic when conditions get bad, and are easy to recapture, which allows scientists to retrieve almost 80 percent of the data loggers each year.

Lab members Oivind Toien, Robert Fridinger, and Fanziska Kohl take a break after placing a telemetry receiving station to track tagged squirrels near Toolik Field Station.

Interdisciplinary Studies

Finally, this National Science Foundation-supported research provides an opportunity to train undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in arctic biology and climate change biology, said Buck. Many of his graduate students would be unlikely to leave the lab bench in normal conditions.

However their ventures into the field provide them with more experience and a better understanding of climate science, he said. This insight has been emphasized recently among universities and the NSF in an effort to coordinate research efforts with academics who have a variety of skills.

“The researchers of tomorrow must be far more interdisciplinary in scope, and these types of research projects provide great opportunities,” he said. —Rachel Walker


Polar Careers: Tracy Dahl, Polar Field Services’ Renewable Energy Specialist

January 12, 2010

Self portrait: Tracy Dahl documents a rare sunny day on the Alaskan tundra. All photos courtesy Tracy Dahl.

Like many who work at the poles, Polar Field Services’  (PFS) Tracy Dahl has taken a circuitous path to arrive at his current position. As PFS’s technical specialist in renewable energy, Dahl has circled the globe, consulted myriad experts and books, designed and built renewable energy contraptions in his work shop and then installed them in the world’s harshest outdoor laboratories.

The Fossil Fuel Dilemma

Throughout his career, he’s been driven by a passion to help ease human reliance on fossil fuels, which he blames for creating a major disconnect between humans and the environment. But rather than bemoan the status quo (a fossil fuel economy), Dahl strives to change it—one photo voltaic array at a time.

“Renewable energy is about manipulating the environment, or at least learning how to harvest it,” says Dahl. “It’s about learning how to adapt to the environment and use what the world has to offer in a benign way, rather than imposing a resource-intensive system upon it.”

Dahl spends much of the field season in Alaska and Greenland installing generators that run off of wind and sun in remote study plots. These systems allow scientists to  run long-term mechanical equipment without contributing to pollution. This keeps their sites clean and, given the longevity of the systems, cuts down on the number of trips scientists need to make to their plots. This reduces emissions and saves money.

Home Life

At home, Dahl strives to live a low-impact life. He grows his own food at his off-the-grid abode in southern Colorado’s mountains at 8,200 feet, works from a home office, rarely drives and powers his life with energy from the sun.

“I checked my carbon footprint online, and my house was nothing, driving was minimal,” says Dahl. “But when I do commute, I go a long way.”

He says he’s never felt compelled to conform to social norms and has been happier pursuing his own interests. These include collecting rainwater to irrigate high-alpine gardens, building the straw-bale home he shares with his wife, Amy, or camping on the ice or tundra.

"Why I Work." Dahl says of his wife Amy (here with family dog, Lars): "Not only is Amy far more photogenic than I, she is also a former PFS employee and polar explorer. She's wisely decided to hang up her mukluks to concentrate on developing our homestead."

Life Choices

His passion for finding renewable energy solutions has led the wanderlust traveller on an adventurous path with stints as a motorcycle mechanic and jobs in remote field camps in Antarctica and the Arctic. As he’s carved out a niche, he’s also learned essential survival skills like how to stay warm and well fed in temperatures that plunge below zero degrees. Forgoing the comforts of fossil fuels does not mean suffering, says Dahl.

“Independence is important to me,” says Dahl. “I have always felt like I should be able to take care of myself. I like that I can go into a polar environment and not just survive but live comfortably.”

Heading South

Dahl got his start at the South Pole in 1994 when he was hired as a snowmobile mechanic at a research station in Antarctica. Although he had only ridden a snowmobile once previously, his experience as a motorcycle mechanic convinced the hiring manager Dahl could do the job. After several seasons, Dahl worked his way up to running the Mechanical Equipment Center until he was offered a job as the first antarctic renewable energy specialist in the 1999/2000 season. It was a dream assignment.

Abundant Resources

“The first year I went to Antarctica, I got off the plane, and there was a brilliant sun in the sky reflecting off the brilliant snow,” says Dahl. “The wind was howling, and I thought, ‘why aren’t there solar panels and wind turbines everywhere? What is wrong with this picture?'”

Back then, polar researchers only had a choice of what size engine generator they wanted for their field sites. Dahl found it incongruous to use expensive fossil fuel (in some places the cost of hauling in fuel translates into roughly $25 per gallon) that had to be stored and polluted the environment.

“It just didn’t make sense, and the more I saw it, the more it drove me crazy,” he says.

Arctic Bound

After a year doing renewable energy in Antarctica, Dahl decided to freelance and join his former colleagues at Polar Field Services. For the next three seasons he and Amy did stints with the company, and Dahl decided to join PFS full time in 2003.

The first year of contracting with PFS was the most challenging. It began with Dahl and Amy running the two-person Raven Camp in Greenland during the summer and then spending the winter at Summit—for a total of 13 months on the ice. Summit was “like a mission to Mars,” says Dahl.

“You are completely out there on your own,” he says. “You are completely dependent on mechanical life support. If the generators go down you better be good at fixing them.”

Cabin Fever

At Summit, the couple holed up for the winter with several others, braving the dark and cold while they kept the station functional. The irony, he noted, was being trapped indoors with his wife and three others for nine months, when all of them had equally self-reliant personalities.

“Polar programs tend to attract people who are outdoorsy, rugged individualists. Then you get gigs like that where you are stuck inside with others all winter,” says Dahl. “It is psychologically challenging to say the least.”

New Technologies

Still, he appreciated the experience enough to sign on, and today Dahl’s job entails designing, building, and installing power systems that won’t pollute the pristine environment they’re built for.

Dahl built and installed this solar and wind-powered power station at Imnavait Creek.

But don’t expect to hear him bragging about his accomplishments, even though system designs have been published in trade journals.

“The field of polar renewable energy is very, very small,” says Dahl. “Sure I have had a modest influence, but it is less because of any engineering brilliance and more so because I write. I document what I do. I have written a lot more words on the subject than most of my peers.”

(Learn more about polar renewable energy technology at

In The Beginning

Dahl’s interesting career path is all the more unusual considering he was an English major who graduated from college 12 years after matriculating. Rather than study renewable energy in school (“30 years ago there weren’t schools that specialized in this; everyone was self-taught”), Dahl studied literature while working as a motorcycle mechanic to pay his bills. However, his fascination with renewable energy had begun long before he went to college.

“I was interested since I first heard about it as a little kid,” says Dahl. “Solar panels that produce electricity without moving parts? How cool is that? I guess I started off nerdy.”

Then his interest evolved.

“I wanted to live out in the middle of nowhere and renewable energy was an obvious application for that. I had a keen interest and background in renewables before I stepped foot in Antarctica.”

Challenges for Polar Renewables

Dahl's field camp in nice weather, Alaska, 2007.

Adopting renewable technology came slowly and required the support of researchers and the National Science Foundation, which today funds significant renewable energy development projects.

Renewable energy has become more widespread and attitudes toward it have become measurably more accepting, says Dahl. Yet the technology is not without problems. At both poles, a seasonal dichotomy provides a fantastic solar resource in the summer and no solar resource in the winter.

“That’s a problem to overcome,” says Dahl. “So you need a back up. Wind is an option. Hydroelectric is problematic because the water freezes in the winter.” Often the best solution is a hybrid approach utilizing renewable energy as the primary power source with an engine generator or other “on-demand” power source for the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Cost  Benefit Analysis

And initial infrastructure costs can sometimes seem prohibitive. Yet when compared to regular fuel costs, renewables are more cost-effective in the long-run, says Dahl.

“Renewable energy offers an operational cost stability you can’t get with fossil fuel with its fluctuating prices,” he says. “Extractive energy sources, be they coal, natural gas or petroleum, can be owned and the supply controlled. That is perhaps the main impediment to large-scale renewable energy development. The powers that be are reluctant to give up such a great business position, regardless of the now clearly identified cost to the environment. Nobody owns the wind, nobody owns the sun, and so your energy source is free. You just have to pay for the infrastructure required to harvest this environmental energy.”

You also have to train technicians to maintain the sometimes quite complex hybrid systems that are bruised and battered by the elements during extreme, long winters.

“There are obstacles in the way, sure, but they can be overcome,” says Dahl.

Creature Comforts

Along the way, Dahl is determined to enjoy himself. That means preparing for long trips in the field so he is comfortable, warm, and dry. Dahl sums up his job requirements as: 33% technical expertise, 33% writing, and 33% field savvy.

“You better have everything pretty well planned out because when you get dropped off by the bush plane, you’ve got what you’ve got,” says Dahl. “I’ve made enough mistakes now that I know how to do it right. That’s how you learn. Make enough mistakes and have enough miserable camping experiences where you know how not to repeat those.”

Dahl's work takes him to beautiful places, like this spot in Alaska.

As for why this lifestyle so appeals to him, Dahl turns more philosophical.

“Why would someone want to go backpacking and then climb a 14,000 foot mountain?” he asks. “For most people that would be hard to understand but for me that’s where I am supposed to be.”

It’s not always easy, he says.

“There are times I am out in the field and am being sucked dry by mosquitoes or sitting out a blizzard and it’s terrible,” says Dahl. “But by and large, I am a person who is far more comfortable in the wilderness than I am in the city. So you find something that resonates and works for you, and so, why not?  Due to the communications revolution, functionally it makes no difference whether I’m sitting in a cubicle in Denver or working from my solar-powered mountaintop home in southern Colorado (“PFS-South,” Dahl jokes). Given the choice, I’m going for the mountain top.”  —Rachel Walker

Greenland’s Summit Camp in the Winter

November 23, 2009

Summit Camp science technician Katie Koster hauls 130-lb. fuel tanks in preparation for winter in Greenland. Koster is one of five people (four Polar Field Services, one NOAA) holding down the fort at Summit Camp. Photo: Andy Clarke

The biggest challenge to spending a winter at Greenland’s Summit Station isn’t the isolation, the dark, or even the cold. Rather the largest difficulty with living at and operating the station through the Winter Solstice and beyond is willing one’s fingers and brain to fire on all cylinders working outside in temperatures that range between -25ºC and -70ºC.

Life In The Far North

Check out the 2007 POLAR-PALOOZA video above with PFS’ Kathy Young for a good overview of life at Summit Camp during the summer. Although it was shot two years ago (before CH2M HILL purchased VECO), daily life remains remarkably similar.  Remove most of the people, the sunlight and knock the temperatures into the negative 20s and below, and you can imagine Summit in the winter.

This season’s five-person crew arrived Nov. 4 to operate Summit Station through the winter months, taking over for the five-person crew that tended the station after it closed for the season in late August. On Nov. 14, the team observed the last official sunrise/sunset until January 29, 2010.  They inhabit winterized buildings, share meal and housekeeping duties, and have about 300 movies to watch during downtime.

Game and movie room at Summit Camp's Big House. Photo: Karl Newyear

Clearly the team is there for much more than downtime. As manager Karl Newyear notes, they come for the self-reliance and the sense of adventure. “It’s intriguing to me that humans can adapt to places as inhospitable to life as the top of the icecap,” he says.  But mostly they come because they’ve been hired to maintain the infrastructure needed to support almost 30 year-round science experiments housed at the station.

Meet The Crew

Mindng the Summit. The crew from left to right: Glenn Grant, Shane Brazzel, Karl Newyear (front), Katie Koster, Mark Melcon (aka Commander).

Fortunately, members of the experienced winter crew are well-suited to extreme temperatures. This rugged and hearty team brings collective polar experience to the job. Camp Manager Newyear spent 10 years as a marine projects coordinator in Antarctica. A logistics specialist with a Ph.D. in oceanography, Newyear lives in Parker, CO., when he’s not on ice.

"Business casual" means something different in Greenland. Karl Newyear in front of Summit Camp's Green House.

Mechanic Shane Brazzel comes to Greenland from Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, where he was a heavy equipment mechanic and on the construction crew. The dirt-bike-loving Californian works nine hours a day, seven days a week checking the generators, monitoring mechanical systems, operating and maintaining station vehicles (snowmobiles, Cat 933 track-loader, and Cat D-6 tractor), and making water by dumping buckets of snow into the melter.

Mark Melcon (aka Commander) is a polar legend with about 20 deployments to Antarctica, eight to Greenland, and one to Alaska. After spending last summer on the Summit construction crew, he’s back for the winter and maintaining his own personal brutal work schedule: rise at 4 a.m., begin working around 7:30 and average about nine hours a day.

Glenn Grant, science technician, is in Greenland for the first time after spending more than a decade in Antarctica. Since 1995, he has worked at Antarctic research stations at Palmer, McMurdo, and the South Pole, on both south polar research ships (Nathanel B. Palmer, Laurence M. Gould), and logged six winter seasons. When not in a polar region, he maintains residence in Port Townsend, WA, and works on other science projects, including some at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO, the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center, in the Bahamas, and aboard the NOAA research vessel RAINIER.

Glenn launches a weather balloon, one of the many responsibilities of the winter crew at Summit. Photo: Karl Newyear

Rounding out the team is NOAA science technician Katie Koster, who also spent her early fall working at Summit, thus adding an element of continuity and familiarity between the Phase I crew (which has scattered around the globe) and the current crew. Katie, a meteorologist, has observed weather at New Hampshire’s Mount Washington as well as at the South Pole (and she’s also a seasoned Summiteer, having worked the 2008 summer and phase I winter as well). An accomplished cyclist and runner, Katie also has been an ice hockey referee.

General Lifestyle

All in a day's work: Katie and Glenn head off to monitor science experiments for absent researchers. Photo: Karl Newyear

All adventurers, the self-selective staff in the far north say spending the winter in Greenland gives them the unique experiences of living in clean air without light pollution, having unrivaled views of the stars and aurora borealis.

With Internet access and routine communication with Polar Field Service staff  as well as colleagues in Kangerlussuaq, they aren’t entirely isolated. And despite the cold, they spend much of their time outside doing physical work. Those seeking an extra adrenaline rush can use one of the three spinning cycles, the rowing machine, free weights, or the rock-climbing practice board, and staffers have been known to strap cross-country skis (or snow kites) on.

Wind-affected snow surrounds Summit Camp in the winter. Photo: Bill McCormick

About Summit Camp

Located at the peak of the Greenland ice cap at 72°34’44.10″N 38°27’34.56″W. Summit is a scientific research station sponsored by the National Science Foundation, operated by CH2M Hill Polar Services (CPS) with research guidance from the Summit Science Coordination Office.

Gifts From The Ancestors

November 18, 2009

Okvik human head carved from Walrus ivory, Princeton University Art Museum; The Lloyd E. Cotsen, Class of 1950, Eskimo Bone and Ivory Carving Collection. Photo: Bruce M. White

For the first time since the late 1980s, a museum exhibition of ivory artifacts and other remnants from the ancient cultures of the Bering Strait is on display at the Princeton Art Museum, in Princeton, New Jersey. “Gifts from The Ancestors” opened Oct. 3 at the University’s art museum with an impressive collection of archaeological art collected over the past millennia from the Bering Strait Region. These objects served as tools to sustain the subsistence hunting lifestyle of the native people, and the exhibition aims to celebrate the artistry and ingenuity of the culture, said Bryan Just, curator of the exhibition.

“The exhibition brings an awareness of the region and its history,” said Just. “It also provided an opportunity to bring a number of Alaska natives to Princeton and involve them in a whole series of opening weekends. They had the chance to see how we’re presenting their ancestry.”

The majority of the objects are carved from walrus ivory and were originally unearthed from archaeological sites along the “Old Bering Sea,” which includes areas of the Chukchi Peninsula in Russia, northwest Alaska, and St. Lawrence Island. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Just and guest curators William Fitzhugh, National Museum of Natural History, and Julie Hollowell, cultural anthropologist, arranged for loans from museums and private collections.

Harpoon socket piece carved as a predator, Walrus ivory, Princeton University Art Museum Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951. Photo: Bruce M. White

The artifacts date from roughly 100 A.D. to 1600 and most are ornately carved with intricate designs endowed with various meanings. At once beautiful and utilitarian, the tools that allowed the natives to hunt whales from kayaks also evoked the spirits and testified to the communities’ faith, said Just.

“Lacking a written tradition around the time of the material it is difficult to know with any certainty if it was considered art,” said Just. “Since there is such beautiful carving on utilitarian objects, it suggests that the division between function and form is not necessarily relevant for this material.”

Much of the engraving on each object was believed to imbue it with the power of a spirit. Oral tradition suggests that this effort improved the efficacy of, say, a harpoon. Walking through the exhibit evokes the imagination, drawing the viewer in close to the objects, many of which measure only several inches tall. Many have specific and unique additions—little hooks and swivels that seem quite practical and functional. And many are polymorphic or polyiconic, said Just, meaning that when observed from different perspectives, an object can take on many forms.

“That layering of imagery is a fascinating thing and shows these objects are tactile works of art,” he said. “They are meant to be handled.”

Punuk or Thule Comb, Walrus Ivory, Princeton University Art Museum; The Lloyd E. Cotsen, Class of 1950, Eskimo Bone and Ivory Carving Collection. Photo: Bruce M. White

Unfortunately, the museum cannot allow visitors to touch the ancient artifacts, so the curators attempted to present them in a number of different orientations.

Their success is evident in the attention and number of visitors the exhibition has received. Courses at the university are incorporating it into classes, and local school children are taking field trips to the museum. The New York Times has written about the exhibition, as have other media outlets.

The exhibit addresses the issue of repatriation, and the Web site offers a detailed explanation of U.S. legislation that provides special protections for Native American sites. For example, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed by the federal government in 1990, provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items — human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony — to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, Alaska native clans or villages, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

And while art seems to belong to the humanities, there is overlap with scientific research. Polar Field Services supports several National Science Foundation-funded studies that make the connection (see this recent post on Aaron Fox’s music repatriation effort, for example). Connections between art and science—particularly at this moment in time of globalization and climate change—can be found in increased awareness of northern cultures, said Just.

“This art incorporates a sensitivity to beauty, and a deep and profound respect of the reciprocal nature of a people’s place in an ecosystem,” he said.

Twenty Years After The Oil Spill

November 13, 2009
Impacts of The Exxon Valdez Tanker and The Largest Oil Spill In History

Oil spills from the Exxon Valdez on the morning of March 24, 1989, after the vessel ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound. Photo: Erik Hill/Anchorage Daily News

Studying the Effects of a Technical Disaster

 When Dr. Duane Gill (Oklahoma State University) traveled to Cordova, Alaska, in 1989 following the catastrophic incident of the tanker vessel Exxon Valdez running aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound (PWS) and spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil, he could not have anticipated he’d stumbled upon his life’s work. A professor of sociology, Gill spent the next two decades documenting sociological impacts of the spill on the lives of Cordova residents. From their decimated fishery to an extended legal battle over remuneration that rose to the Supreme Court, he, Dr. Steve Picou and a research team including Maurie Cohen, Liesel Ritchie, and Kati Arata dove into the spill’s aftermath in what he calls a “20-year odyssey” studying the impacts of the largest oil spill in history and its devastating impacts.

2008:  Supreme Court Mandates A (Much Reduced) Punitive Damage of $500 million

In what may be his final assessment of the community, Gill is heading north 20 years after the spill with funding from the National Science Foundation for a research project to document how a 2008 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ordering Exxon to pay $500 million in punitive damages affects the community. Exxon was originally ordered to pay $5 billion in punitive damages to 33,000 plaintiffs in a 1994 jury trial, but the Court implemented a one-to-one ratio of punitive damages to actual damages reducing the award to one-tenth of the original amount. Even with an additional $500 million in interest that Exxon has been ordered to pay, the total award does not cover economic, social and cultural losses experienced by many survivors of this disaster.

The spill eviscerated much of the wildlife and decimated fisheries. This devastated the local economy, which was based on natural resources. Photo: Wikipedia

In their latest project, Gill, Picou, and Ritchie will study impacts of the litigation decision and subsequent disbursement of money on individuals, groups and the Cordova community. Gill and Ritchie will travel to Alaska in mid-November to continue a panel study of commercial fishermen and Alaska Natives that began in 2001. A panel study collects data from the same person at different points in time; Gill hopes to survey as many of the original participants as he can. They will return to Cordova over the next two years to conduct intensive interviews as a continuation of a qualitative panel study initiated by Ritchie in 2002. Finally, Picou will oversee a telephone survey of the Cordova community during the last year of the three-year project. Gill expects to wrap up the study in 2012.

Community Reaction

 “Last year, when the ruling came out, people were shocked, devastated, and angered,” said Gill. “I heard a lot of cussing after the decision was announced. There was a sense of betrayal and loss of faith in the justice system.”

One Cordova resident confided to Gill that he “cannot say the pledge of allegiance anymore because the last line says, ‘justice for all,’ and that’s a sham.”

Gill said the bitter disappointment he witnessed last year, immediately after the ruling was announced, was emotionally tough. Over the decades he has earned the trust and respect of those he studies. And the academic value of his research allows him and his colleagues to maintain professionalism while having empathy for their subjects.

“Do I get emotionally involved?” he asked. “Of course. I have a heart. We maintain professionalism in the field and we don’t compromise that, but at the same time we’re human and there is empathy for the people and community.”

Ongoing Research on the Impacts of the Oil Spill: Ecological Damage, Psychological Distress


Crews clean up the oil spill on a beach following the accident with the Exxon Valdez tanker. Photo: Wikipedia

Since the spill, which occurred March 24, 1989, Gill and the research team have documented impacts of the environmental damage to the community. The research team examined how Cordova and groups like commercial fishermen and Alaska Natives are tied to renewable resources such as fish and how damages to these resources disrupted the local economy, as well as cultural activities and social networks. Much of the social disruption and psychological stress observed by the research team in the first few years after the spill were related to damaged resources that were slow to recover—20 years after the spill, only nine of 22 species damaged by the spill have completely recovered. In the mid-1990s, as Exxon appealed court rulings on punitive damages, Gill observed lingering disruption and psychological stress within the community.

“There was chronic distress because things weren’t resolved,” said Gill. “A lot of the stress was not only due to natural resource damages, but also to the unresolved litigation.”

Prolonged litigation is stressful, he said. Residents accustomed to a subsistence- and renewable resource-based lifestyle had to adjust to dealing with attorneys, a complex legal system, and a giant corporation with seemingly unlimited resources.

“There has been prolonged uncertainty as well as a sense that this case should have been resolved,” he said. “In addition, these people suffered a lot of damage, especially with the collapse of the herring fishery. The actual damage award was calculated in 1994 and does not cover the losses these people have continued to experience.”

Mental Health Impacts

 In the mid-1990s, the community invited Gill and his colleague Steve Picou to devise a mental health program focused on coping with technological disasters. Recognizing that a disaster like this oil spill had implications that reached far beyond the ordinary disruptions to services and jobs, the two social scientists aimed to address the less tangible impacts of the disaster. For instance, they noted “disruption of family structure and unity, domestic violence, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and psychological impairment.” At the community’s request, they developed a guidebook on how to cope with technological disasters.

“What began as an academic study on community impacts of a technical disaster evolved into a practical application to help (the guidebook), and later to a specific focus on litigation impacts in 2000,” said Gill. “The community expected a decision and waited for years. Instead of a decision, the case just got passed back and forth between the courts.”

Settlement Expectations

Initially, Gill and his colleagues expected the punitive damage award would have an overwhelming impact on the community. When residents were expecting payouts of billions of dollars, the research team anticipated an economic boom that would affect at least 40 percent of the households in the community and lead to a “money spill.”

“A lot of the fishermen who weren’t able to fish worked for Exxon in 1989, and some became known as ‘spillionaires,'” said Gill. Some felt those who worked for Exxon had sold out, and that they were enriching themselves as others suffered. There was concern that a similar scenario would be repeated with the punitive damage award disbursement. With the drastic reduction in punitive damages, the impacts are hypothesized to be different than previously expected.

Reluctant Resignation


Twenty years after the spill, the obvious damage has been cleaned up, but mistrust of the government and corporations remains and will likely linger, says Gill. Photo: Erik Hill/Anchorage Daily News

Now, with last year’s Supreme Court decision, Gill said this current research project may be the last. Twenty years after 11 million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound, there may finally be closure. Gill said he expects to find evidence of “reluctant resignation.”

“The attorneys for the community see the Supreme Court decision as a loss,” he said. “I expect the stress and the disruption that we have measured over the past several years will begin to decline. I think the community will begin to arrive at some semblance of normalcy. They can begin to put this behind them.”

Granted, the Exxon Valdez oil spill will not completely be resolved until the ecosystem recovers, but from a sociological perspective, Gill anticipates the disruption and stress to dissipate. In its place, though, feelings of betrayal and distrust will likely linger.

“I think we will find a persistent loss and lack of trust in basic social institutions such as the court system, loss of trust in state and federal government, lack of trust in major corporations,” he said. “That equates into a loss of social capital that is based upon issues and networks of trust and reciprocity. This disaster has changed their worldview. Many people in Cordova believe they cannot depend upon things they used to depend upon.”

“Most of the people we have talked to believe the ecosystem will not recover in their lifetime,” Gill said. “For many, the only way the disaster will end is when they die.”

Sifting Through the Sand for Clues of Prehistoric Inuit Life

September 16, 2009

In the quest to discover more about prehistoric human development and settlement in and around the Bering Strait, scientists have long probed archaeological sites in Northwest Alaska in search of artifacts, architecture, and other clues for how the Inuit culture evolved. Perhaps the most well-known site has been Point Hope, Alaska, one of the oldest known occupied human settlements in North America.

What hasn’t been fully explored in the region is a promontory on the northern coast of the Seward Peninsula: Cape Espenberg. Considered the “last great unstudied beach ridge sequence in Northwest Alaska,” according to Dr. John Hoffecker of the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), Cape Espenberg was a robust Iñupiat community from 1000 A.D. to about 1800 A.D. The cape is the focus of a three-year study supported by the National Science Foundation and co-led by Hoffecker and Dr. Owen Mason, also with INSTAAR. Their project aims to “track change over time to further develop an understanding for the formative period of Iñupiat culture,” said Hoffecker.

The beach at Cape Espenberg today. One thousand years ago, this was the site of a robust Inuit community. Photo by Owen K. Masen.

The beach at Cape Espenberg today. One thousand years ago, this was the site of a robust Inuit community. Photo: Owen K. Masen

“Cape Espenberg was abandoned by its inhabitants prior to the contact period  for reasons that are unclear,” said Hoffecker.. “We hope to recover more information about the people who were there in the late prehistoric times as well.”

Specifically through an interdisciplinary effort with archaeologists, soil specialists, paleoecologists, and other experts, they plan to map the cape’s beach ridges, complete partial excavation of myriad sub-terranean homes, collect artifacts, and sample the soil to better understand how the former inhabitants survived.

Before unearthing clues about the economy, the crew unearths the house. Photo John Hoffecker.

Before unearthing clues about the economy, the crew unearths the house. Photo: John Hoffecker

The crew excavates entirely by hand. After identifying a subterranean home, they outline the plot and get to work. Photo John Hoffecker.

The crew excavates entirely by hand. After identifying a subterranean home, they outline the plot and get to work. Photo: John Hoffecker

“We want to reconstruct their economy,” said Hoffecker. “We have yet to determine if whaling was an important economic component. There are whale bones on the cape, but it is possible the bone washed up there.” (Kotzebue Sound is not a popular migration path for whales, negating any modern-day whaling; whether or not whales traveled a different route 1,000 years ago is one topic Hoffecker and his colleagues will explore.)

One of the many artifacts unearthed during this summer's field season. Photo John Hoffecker.

One of the many artifacts unearthed during this summer's field season. Photo: Owen K. Mason

In addition, the team will complete an extensive map of the area and overlay it with evidence of the former occupants’ lifestyle, as pieced together by the artifacts and information from soil micromorphology they will collect. The team will focus on the period between 800 and 1400 AD, when major climate change occurred in conjunction with a cultural transition in the greater Bering Strait region.

The beach ridges at Cape Espenberg was formed by marine deposits and windblown sand, and its residents built their subterranean houses in sand using whale bone and drift wood to strengthen the structures, said Hoffecker. He and his team spent this summer’s field season surveying the ridges and selecting the main spots for next year’s research, when they will concentrate on ridges 6, 5, and 4. This summer they were a team of eight, and next year that number will grow as they bring a larger crew, camp staff, and students from nearby communities as part of a National Park Service mentorship program that aims to involve local Native Alaskan communities in the project and other scientific pursuits.

This summer was Hoffecker’s first on the cape, and he said the abundant wildlife and remote location often felt prehistoric. After a summer of recon, he said one of next year’s biggest challenges may be dealing with the more modern mammals: ground squirrels, which disrupted excavation.

“They weren’t shy at all,” he said. “They’d burrow into a fresh stratigraphic profile and just mess it up.”

Educating the Whole Scientist

September 11, 2009

When Dartmouth College graduate student Simone Whitecloud landed in Greenland this July, 70-degree temperatures and mosquito-free skies greeted her. It was an auspicious start for the Ph.D. candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology who joined four Dartmouth professors and one other graduate student in Greenland for two weeks in a reconnaissance mission. Their task? Plan out the 2010 and beyond curriculum for the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) award from the National Science Foundation: the Dartmouth IGERT in Polar Environmental Change.

“Greenland is incredibly beautiful,” said Whitecloud. “And it was surprisingly hospitable while we were there.”

Simone Whitecloud, a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology at Dartmouth College traveled to Greenland this summer to help plan the upcoming Dartmouth IGERT summer curriculum.

Simone Whitecloud, a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology at Dartmouth College, traveled to Greenland this summer to help plan the upcoming Dartmouth IGERT summer curriculum. Photo Laura Levy.

During their field stay, the six-person team explored Greenland, seeking potential locations for short field studies for next summer’s group of graduate students.

“We were all giving feedback and brainstorming in the field,” said Whitecloud. “It was a combination of all of us looking at the landscape and thinking up potential study questions and projects that students could do in a few days as a group.”

The IGERT team discovered there's more to Greenland than ice--like flowers blooming near Kangerluusuaq, for instance. Photo by Simone Whitecloud.

The IGERT team discovered there's more to Greenland than ice--like flowers blooming near Kangerluusuaq, for instance. Photo by Simone Whitecloud.

Interdisciplinary in the most holistic sense: the cycle of life and death. The crew came upon a musk ox carcass near Kangerluussuaq. Photo Simone Whitecloud.

Interdisciplinary in the most holistic sense: the cycle of life and death. The crew came upon a musk ox carcass near Kangerluussuaq. Photo Simone Whitecloud.

Beginning next summer, students in the Dartmouth IGERT in Polar Environmental Change will enhance their core curriculum for graduate programs in Earth Sciences, Engineering Sciences, or Biological Sciences with summer fieldwork in Greenland, where they will work at the University of Greenland and with the Inuit Circumpolar Council. The program will strike a balance between rigorous scientific field work and cultural immersion, encouraging students to explore the human aspects of the study subjects, said Whitecloud.

“The human side of the IGERT program interested me because I want to work with indigenous Greenlanders who have important  knowledge of their country and of the changing climate,” she said. “This program facilitates more of an open dialogue between the researchers and the native people.”

Whitecloud is a Native American of Anishinaabeg (Chippewa) descent from New Orleans. Despite her pursuit of “hard” science, she said the interdisciplinary approach of the IGERT program is a crucial component of her education.

“One of the struggles for me as an academic is to balance my heartfelt connection with nature with the objective view science requires,” she said.

The Greenland ice sheet begins. Photo Simone Whitecloud.

The Greenland ice sheet begins. Photo Simone Whitecloud.

Dartmouth IGERT fellows will also interact with mentors who have expertise in the atmosphere, ice, snow, sea ice, soil, surface and ground water, vegetation and animal populations, and human dimensions of environmental change. Fellows apply separately to specific graduate programs and indicate their interest in the IGERT component.

During the summers of 2010-2012, fellows will spend approximately four weeks in Greenland, including  a two-week field-study  and a two-week exploration of policy issues—specifically the human dimensions of climate change—based in Nuuk, Greenland’s capitol. During the field work, students will be grouped into two disciplines: terrestrial studies based in Kangerlussuaq, and firn/ice studies based from Summit Station.

artmouth professors Ross Virginia, environmental science, and Xiahong Feng, earth sciences, collect soil samples. Virginia directs the IGERT Ph.D. program in Polar Environmental Change. Photo Simone Whitecloud.

Dartmouth professors Ross Virginia, environmental science, and Xiahong Feng, earth sciences, collect soil samples. Virginia directs the IGERT Ph.D. program in Polar Environmental Change. Photo Simone Whitecloud.

The NSF-sponsored IGERT exists at many universities and aims to empower American Ph.D. scientists and engineers with the technical, professional, and personal skills to become leaders and creative agents for change. According to the National Science Foundation, “The program is intended to catalyze a cultural change in graduate education, for students, faculty, and institutions, by establishing innovative new models for graduate education and training in a fertile environment for collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.”